At the end of 2012, she started the Exhibit project, where she wrote a song a week based on trips to different New York City museums.
Jenny Owen Youngs: Yeah. It's a weekly serial solo project. I actually have three weeks left, three songs left, for a total of eight. I go to a different museum in New York every week and I just kind of drive out on whatever's going on at that particular museum, and I come home and give myself a week to write a song inspired in whatever way by that visit. And then I record it and put it up on Bandcamp.
Songfacts: So what song was the easiest to write and what song was the hardest to write?
Jenny: Hmmm. It's weird, they've all been a lot easier than I expected. Things just sort of seem to come out when I've been going on these little visits. If I have to rank them, it probably has just gotten easier as I've gone along. So maybe the first one was the hardest because it was a new idea and I didn't know what people were going to think of it or if anybody was going to care, or listen to the songs or whatever, so that definitely puts a cloud over the creative process. But once I got over that initial hump, it's just been really fun, and easier than I thought.
Songfacts: So did it seem as natural as writing other songs or did you feel like you were doing a job and it was sort of a professional endeavor, maybe more so than a creative endeavor?
Jenny: You know what's interesting, I think that it has felt as natural as anything else I've done. I thought having the one week limit would really freak me out and make me stress and be very uncomfortable with what I was creating. But what I've actually found is that holding myself accountable to that kind of schedule has made it easier to follow through on an idea. Whereas, if I was just writing with no deadline in mind, I might come up with idea after idea and just toss them without seeing them through to their fullest extent. So this process has been different, but very natural.
Songfacts: Do you have a favorite song that you've written from this process?
Jenny: I think my favorite one is the most recent, which is called "North Star."
Songfacts: What was it inspired by?
Jenny: That was inspired by a visit to the American Museum of Natural History's Hall of the Universe.
Songfacts: It's an astronomy one?
Songfacts: Do you have a pretty good knowledge of astronomy to draw upon?
Jenny: I wish I had a stronger knowledge. I learned some things when I went to the museum and planetarium. And I could pick out Orion for you. But unfortunately I don't have the knowledge I would love to have.
Songfacts: Has there been any talk about doing something educational and maybe even a children's educational project?
Jenny: Well, I guess I haven't really thought about it in those terms. I feel like when it comes to children and education, I feel very much at a loss. I don't feel like it's my place. That sort of thing would be better suited or better served by somebody who actually knows what the hell they're talking about. But it's been very educational for me. [Laughs]
Songfacts: So then it's a personal education as opposed to you trying to educate others?
Jenny: Yeah, totally. I definitely did not set out to educate anybody or create words that could be seen as educational. It was more of a writing exercise, I guess. And I'm lucky to live in a city that has a ton of really cool museums, and any excuse to go to the American Museum of Natural History is a good enough excuse for me. I just wanted to get the wheels greased, and it seemed like such a cool thing to hold myself to. It's been really fun and I've been more excited about writing than I thought I would be.
Songfacts: Do you think it's made you a better songwriter?
Jenny: You know, what is a better songwriter? Gosh, I don't know. I think I'm a better songwriter now than I was a year ago, and I was a better songwriter a year ago than I was two years ago. My real answer is yes. Because I feel like songwriting is like any muscle in your body: the more you exercise it, the better it's going to function. So I'm looking forward to when I start writing for my next record. That was a part of the impetus for this project, because I wanted to get those muscles in tip top shape.
Songfacts: I read in one of your biographies that you play the tuba, is that correct?
Jenny: Yeah. At this point in my life, I don't know how well I could get around a tuba, but I did play it for a handful of years in high school - just oom pah pah.
Songfacts: Were you in the marching band?
Jenny: I was in the regular band and I was in marching band playing the sousaphone for one game, and after that game I was like, I cannot support the weight of a sousaphone. It's painful.
Songfacts: I played a baritone horn in high school, so we're from the same family.
Jenny: Oh, yeah, low brass! Excellent.
Songfacts: One of your most popular songs is the one that they used in the show Weeds ["Fuck Was I"]. Even in this day and age, it's kind of strange to hear a girl say a word like "fuck" in a song.
Songfacts: So was it uncomfortable for you to write something like that?
I've been playing that song for a bunch of years, and I feel like it's my responsibility to play it as long as I feel like I can do a good job. Some nights it just is a total wreck, but I like to play the songs that people really respond to, because there's nothing worse than a band who you go see them and they won't play, for lack of a better word, their hits. That's always kind of a bummer. I don't want to shoo people who pay to come out and see me, I want to play the songs. But now it feels weirder to perform it because I don't have the sailor mouth that I once did. So it always feel a little funny.
I'm an adult now. [Laughing] So excessive swearing is just a funny thing to get up on stage and do now as a grownup.
Songfacts: What was the original inspiration for that song?
Jenny: Oh, horrible, horrible, horrible decision making. Just your classic love gone wrong hell.
Songfacts: I guess we can all relate to that. Almost every day we make decisions where we think, What was I thinking? Or was I?
Jenny: Yeah. I guess that that's what I've found across the board is it seems to be super relatable. And what's more universal than regret.
Songfacts: Well, I'm hoping you're not going to regret the Revival tour.
Jenny: Oh, no. I already know I won't.
Songfacts: How did you come about getting on that tour?
Jenny: Well, the whole tour is sort of curated by Chuck Ragan, who is amazing. Back in 2009 they were seeking submissions from artists to fill out their roster for the 2009 fall tour, and I got submitted. And knowing Chuck the way that I do now, I can just picture him listening to every single submission and being like, "Yeah! This is what we want." He has a very low gravelly voice.
So I got selected for that tour and I did eight days, and I just really, really got on well with everybody. And Chuck is just an amazing, amazing man with a heart of gold. We've kept in touch and I ended up going on some tours with some other people who were on that tour or earlier Revival tours, like Tim Barry and Frank Turner. I have known these guys for a few years now, and when this tour came up, Chuck's people reached out to see if I wanted to do some dates, and I was like, "Hell yes, I do!" That tour is the most fun tour.
Songfacts: Is there any collaboration that goes on while you're touring? Have you ever written any songs with any of the other artists on that tour?
Jenny: I have not, but, gosh, I really hope that kind of activity happens over the course of these tours. I was on the last one for so short a period that it was just not a whole lot of downtime. But the premise of the tour is collaboration. Everybody is up on stage and we all play one of everybody's songs together. And then each individual person has an individual short set, and there's a house bass player and a house fiddle player, and various people guest on various peoples' sets. Then we all do a group set again at the end. It's like a big hootenanny. It's so rowdy and beer-ful. Just really great guys who play music for their lives for all the right reasons. And a lot of love in the room.
Songfacts: I was looking at your Web site, and there's a Jenny Owen Youngs flask. And I don't know, how common is that for artists to sell their own flasks?
Jenny: Well, it's interesting. I got those made up after I did the tour with Frank Turner and a band called Larry and His Flask in the fall. And I think it's very common. I do a lot of work in the sort of more singer songwriter-y world and the indie world. But then this Chuck Ragan/Frank Turner/Tim Barry Revival tour, this sort of acoustic punk scene, is this whole other thing. I would say it's very common for the bands and people in that scene to have flasks.
May 28, 2013. Get more at jennyowenyoungs.com.
More Song Writing